Youth Voices at New Directions Secondary School: Engaging students in digital and non digital writing


Like most NYC public schools, New Directions shares space in a vast education complex housing several schools in one building. It occupies the basement of the Taft Education Campus. Only a year old, the school opened to serve students who are at least two years behind their peers and who come to school with a complex set of economic, family and learning issues. Many students have been excluded from other schools, have behavioural difficulties, learning needs or social situations which mean that they are working below expected grade levels or have missed significant schooling.

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Several organisations and individuals helped me plan this study visit and identify practice which would be useful and relevant to the work of the CLC. Paul Allison, the teacher I visited at New Directions had been described to me as having some of the most innovative practice in the use of digital technology with students, especially his promotion of digital writing. I had already seen Paul and his students on Google Hangouts and read Paul’s posts on social media before coming to New York and met him at last weekend’s NY Writing Project conference, but I was awestruck by observing his skill and craft as a teacher of extremely vulnerable young people. The content, structure and pacing of Paul’s lessons are considered and meticulous and yet he needs to anticipate that anything might happen in terms of individual children’s behaviour. His ability to keep the rest of the class focused and moving forward whilst dealing with individual needs is incredibly impressive. The English lesson I observed was the second class of the day and followed on straight away from Paul’s co teacher’s visual art class. Paul uses the ideas of Ito Mizuko (Hanging Out, Messing Around, Geeking Out) for the first 10 minutes of his lesson. He uses this theory about the way students interact with digital media to grab the attention of the students, to focus them on something they are interested in and to learn about his class’ interests and abilities by observing them in these precious minutes at the beginning of the lesson. Each student uses an individual laptop and works on this activity for precisely 10 minutes moving from their own interest sites to those chosen by Paul (prepared tasks on Google Drive, Youth Voices site and myOn), which will be used during the remainder of the class.
At the end of this 10 minutes Paul asks all the students to shut their laptops, which he takes away from them as they move immediately into the next task – a writing task on paper for another 10 minutes. What is so impressive about the seamless move between these activities is how the structure helps the group become increasingly focused, quiet and on task. The room has become calm and purposeful after the loud banter and activity at the cross over between art and English. And these students write a lot in 10 minutes. Paul calls this non digital task the Detox; a way of practicing how to have discipline and to “decide to turn the buzz off once in a while”. This is the Hook for the lesson and students are asked to tell a story about a time in their lives, out of school, when they have been ‘here, real, connected, great’ (the school agreements). This writing will be typed up later into their Google Docs spaces. Whilst the students wrote Paul told them “ Write as much as you can, it will develop your fluency”. This made me think of  Myra and my reference to Jane Medwell’s work on automaticity, which is about the importance of handwriting for fluency in writing ideas and how we applied this notion to keyboarding in our own findings.  The students in Paul’s class are all working below expected levels and yet they are producing extensive writing in a short period. I was particularly interested in this interplay between the digital and non digital writing given the focus of my research study with Myra Barrs on the difference between children’s writing on their class blogs and on paper in their exercise books. Paul’s expertise means he knows how to capitalise on the different media and use the different tasks to feed into each other, building on the students’ interest, focus and knowledge. It is a whole class activity where there is real individual focus from young people who’s needs mean they might become unsettled at any moment. After these focused 10 minute tasks, Paul brings the students back into the middle of the room for a group discussion based on the work they did the day before and which they will extend in the next task. As part of the Out of Eden project they are doing on the Youth Voices site, the class are exploring the story of Paul Salopek who is walking around the world over seven years. The evening before coming to New Directions, I observe the EdTechTalk Hangout On Air which Paul was hosting an Out of Eden with team member from Project Zero at Harvard Graduate School.  The pervious day the students had been given sheets with information about the Out of Eden walk and asked to hand write any questions they had. Paul Allison had collated these questions giving them a stake in the next part of their work. Following the discussion, the students return to their laptops for a 30 minute task to be posted on the Youth Voices site. They have to read posts written by students from other schools and start a conversation or comment on a conversation that already exists. They also have to read and paraphrase Paul Salopek’s account using a tool which scaffolds the writing. As we move into a post levels world in the english education system, it is helpful to explore assessment models such as the one that Paul and colleagues have developed at New Directions. Given permission for the NY Department of Education to create their own model, the school uses a mastery approach for 14 learning competencies. Like may schools and organisations in the UK, London CLC has been exploring the use of badges as a way to record learning and so this approach at New Directions has much to teach us. See how Paul has used the P2PU community to register badges.
Learning Competencies
Learning Competencies

Like all of the schools I’ve visited in New York, New Directions uses Google Apps for Education as the main platform on which students do their work, so although most of their computers are older than any one would see in a UK school, the widespread use of cloud based technologies is having a real impact on the way students and teachers can work. In addition to creating and storing all their work on Google Drive, Paul’s classes also use the Youth Voices platform for much of their writing. Again, this gave me much to reflect on in relation to how teachers used class blogs in our Educational blogs study. The structure of working on the same themes as other classes across the US uses commenting on the writing of other young people a key part of the writing process – very much the ‘participatory culture’ I quote from Jenkins et al. The way Paul structures these writing tasks on the site also made me think about our ideas about ‘invitations and framing’ in our study and how teachers need to make writing really inviting. Paul Allison really is an extraordinary teacher: passionate, innovative with a sense of what really matters in supporting these most disadvantaged and vulnerable of young people growing up in extremely challenging circumstances in the South Bronx. My time at New Directions has given me a huge amount to reflect on and take back to the schools I work with.

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